One of the biggest hoaxes of American history is that the Civil War ended back in 1865. Unfortunately, it has not ended yet. What was achieved back then was an armistice, similar to the situation between the two Koreas.
As the current logjam in the US Congress makes plain, the Civil War is still very present in today’s America – and with a virulence that most other civilised nations find as breathtaking as it is irresponsible.
There are plenty of US commentators now who try to make light of the situation in their country. They argue that it is just a bunch of crazy Tea Party Republicans who are causing the mayhem. Such an interpretation underestimates the forces of history and the continuing deep divisions of American society.
The reason the Civil War was declared finished, according to the history books, was the military defeat of the South and its secessionist forces. But can anyone seriously doubt that the same anti-Union spirit is still to be heard loud and clear in the halls of the US Congress today?
The fight against Obamacare is cast by Republicans as fighting the authoritarian – and, in the words of some conservative commentators, fascist – views of President Barack Obama’s administration and what they label as the American Left. Meanwhile, in their own eyes, the Republicans are fighting the good fight of staking out the democratic (!) and libertarian political high ground, all in the defence of “freedom”.
This underscores that what is really going on in Washington today is a replay of the Kulturkampf, a period of German history that occurred in the 1870s. At the time, that country’s modernising forces resolved to fight back against the economically retarding influence of conservative religious forces, mainly the Catholic Church.
The Catholic Church, a powerful economic force in Germany in the mid-19th century, fiercely resisted any suggestions of modernising social structures – just as many Republicans do now. It sought to preserve the economic power of the established, largely feudal-era interests, that is, its own – much as Republicans do now.
The fight in Washington thus is not about any of the things in the headlines, be it the budget, debt or Obama’s health-care reforms. These are merely proxies in a much more fundamental battle over the future structure of American society.
Democrats want those structures to be opened up, to create more economic rights for the underprivileged, so that the national economy can grow in the future. To Republicans, any investment in these and other long-term causes is a net negative on what they see as their core mission – defending the interests of rich Americans.
Thus, we are largely dealing with a battle over redistributing shares of economic power, covered up in the clothing of cultural values. That is why it is so bitterly fought. To both sides, the entire future of the country is at stake.
The proper way to understand the slavery issue as well as the health-care law, therefore, is to see them as symbols of much deeper conflicts.
As it turns out, even the parallel developments in the legislative process are amazing. Slavery was formally abolished in the US in 1865 and, for a few years, in the period of Reconstruction, there seemed to be a will to move the country ahead.
But even back then, the intended key reform component was never really followed through. That step was setting up a bank that would also get involved in granting loans to freed slaves, so that they could build a prosperous future for themselves and their families
The so-called Freedmen’s Bureau met a fate similar to what today’s Republicans have in mind for the universal health-care law, which they call Obamacare.
The Freedmen’s Bureau lingered on for a few years before it essentially faded away. The economic, social and cultural consequences of condemning freed slaves essentially to a life of continued servitude, albeit of another kind, are well known. They are the root cause of the culture of dependence that sadly continues to this day – and that today’s Republicans are quick to use as a justification not to do more for African-Americans.
The Affordable Health Care Act was passed by the US Congress, just as the Freedmen’s Bureau had been established in 1865. However, with their countless defunding moves, the Republicans are pursuing a similar strategy, as was the case with the Freedmen’s Bureau before. In today’s case, they are trying to prevent nationwide access to health care from truly becoming reality in the land. Amazing how history repeats itself.
Of course, there is one important distinction – and one that should truly make today’s Republicans squirm. In the case of the US Civil War of 1861-65, it was the Republicans, who were mostly found in the north at the time, who were the political force aligned against slavery (president Lincoln was a Republican), while it was Southern Democrats who fiercely resisted its abolition, as well as resisting the Civil Rights Act 100 years later.
In essence, now the South is once again rebelling against modernising shifts of American society. Today, in one of the great political realignments of modern politics, that region is the power base of the Republican Party
The equivalent of politically and economically freeing the slaves back then is now the granting of access to health care to all Americans.
In either case, the old order is about to be toppled and that leads Southerners and white conservatives, especially, to fear for the end of the US, as they know it.
Back then, they felt the abolition of slavery and the economic independence of blacks had to be prevented at all costs because the southern state economies and their leaders’ personal wealth depended on slavery and the economic suppression of the ultimate underclass.
Now, the role of the abolition of slavery in the secessionist cause is played by the move by Obama to declare that the state should play a role in ensuring that all Americans are under the umbrella of health insurance.
Look at the list of state governors who have refused to expand the federal medical programme for low-income people (known as Medicaid) and compare that to the list of the old confederacy states that fought to preserve slavery. There is an amazing overlap
There is one more big irony to be pointed out in a historic context: it would be a great injustice to conservatives anywhere on the planet to agree with US Republicans that opposing health insurance coverage for the entire population is conservative in any sense of the word.
One of the world’s greatest arch-conservatives, the then German chancellor Otto von Bismarck, introduced health coverage for all Germans as far back as 1883. What is it about US “conservatives” that, by 2013, they cannot muster the same degree of enlightenment as Bismarck, all of 130 years later?
The present state of affairs runs amazingly counter to America’s global ideology. According to its self-promotion, the US casts itself as the modernising vanguard of humanity. In light of what is going on in Washington today, it is evident that close to half of the US Congress wants an America that is more conservative than Bismarck’s 1880s Germany.
Stephan Richter is the publisher and editor-in-chief of The Globalist.